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Original Issue

Play Ball!

In the midst of the baseball strike, the NFL opened its season with a 13-game Sunday slate that included a remarkable quarterback duel between Miami's Dan Marino and New England's Drew Bledsoe

There is a point in the movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective when things look pretty grim for Dan Marino. The Super Bowl has just begun and Marino is supposed to be the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, but—darn it!—he's all tied up. He's roped to a tackling dummy, held hostage by evil policewoman Sean Young, who is actually a former male kicker for the Dolphins, who is being pursued by pet detective Jim Carrey, who lives by the credo "I don't do humans" and who, forget it. A stupid movie? No dumber than, say, counting Marino out of real-life NFL stardom simply because he tore his right Achilles tendon last October, had surgery and has appeared slow, unfit, tentative, immobile, pained, awkward and grumpy ever since.

Marino's performance in the Dolphins' final preseason game this year, against the Minnesota Vikings, was so dismal—four completions in 12 attempts for 37 yards and two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown—that some Miami sportswriters suggested that it might be time to bench him in favor of backup Bernie Kosar. At practice last Saturday before the season opener, against the New England Patriots, Marino grumped that he couldn't take much more interrogation or speculation.

"You get sick of it," he said. "How many times can you get asked about your ankle? It's been almost a year of the same thing—everybody asking, "How is it?' A lot of times the fans don't even know what's hurt, and they ask, 'How's your knee?' I even got a call from Al Gore while I was rehabbing [the vice president blew out his Achilles in a recent pickup basketball game]. I haven't talked to him yet. I will, I guess. But what am I going to tell him?"

Well, how about this: Drop back and throw bullets, Al.

Because that's what Marino did 24 hours later against the Patriots at Joe Robbie Stadium. Bad foot? Marino moved like Tinker Bell while leading the Dolphins to a 39-35 shoot-out win. He even scrambled 10 yards for a first-quarter first down, diving headlong into the rain-soaked slop that once had been base path dirt for the Florida Marlins baseball team, which doesn't play baseball anymore. But that's another story. Tentative arm? Marino threw for 306 yards and four touchdowns in the second half. He looked so good on his bad legs (his left knee is an arthritic mess from live surgical procedures) that you had to wonder what the surgeons implanted last fall when they sutured the rip of his Achilles tendon, which hadn't so much snapped in half as it had unraveled in a fibrous explosion from the base of his calf muscle to the top of his heel bone.

For the game, the 33-year-old Marino was 23 of 42 for 473 yards and five touchdowns. The yardage was the second-highest total in Dolphin history, behind Marino's 521 yards against the New York Jets in 1988. The day's touchdowns helped break an NFL record, which Marino had shared with John Unitas, for career games with four or more TD passes. Marino now has done it 18 times. The fourth-quarter comeback win—the Dolphins were down 35-32 with 3½ minutes to go—was the 26th of Marino's career.

"That's Dan Marino," said Dolphin wide receiver Irving Fryar with a shrug afterward, using minimalist pith to good effect. Fryar had just caught five Marino passes for 211 yards and three scores, including the game-winner on a testosterone-charged, height-of-arrogance, perfectly thrown 35-yard strike up the right sideline on fourth-and-five when a drop-off pass probably would have sufficed, and he sensed intuitively that the best way to praise a guy like Marino after a transcendent performance was simply to call the man himself.

That was what everyone had been wondering all these months as they watched Marino swell grandly—he hit 250 pounds while hobbled with his cast—and then work his way into fighting trim (224 well-muscled pounds) for his comeback: Was he himself?

Doing Ace Ventura had been easy, Marino said: "I just played myself." The irony was that the man who had thrown for 40,000 yards faster than anyone in NFL history could play himself easier on celluloid than in real life. "We're looking hard to see if he's lost any foot quickness," said Dolphin coach Don Shula somewhat ominously before the opener. Shula and Marino have been together longer than Arm & Hammer, but pro football is a cold business. Dan Marino, the gimp, is somebody else, somebody of no use to the franchise except as history.

The identity crisis was eating at Marino's soul, making him snappy with reporters, desperate to get the season under way, to play a game, to see for himself what he had lost or regained. "What I have to do is just play," he said, sweating through another scorching pregame practice. "I need to just play quarterback."

In previous years Marino had spoken of the "little moves" that keep him in business, the barely noticed half steps and shuffles and hops he takes during the heat of battle to evade blitzers, sackers and career-ending joint and bone trauma. He didn't know if he had those moves anymore. "That's the thing that's missing," he said before the game. "The movement in the pocket. The little stuff this way and that way."

He looked off across the practice field at Nova University, over to the Baudhuin Oral School on the campus of the college, where his six-year-old autistic son, Michael, is a student. He sighed. He didn't want to talk about this anymore. What good would it do? Marino is not an analytical guy; he is a man of action, someone who just does. He's like Shula in that regard. Why think about abstractions when there are so many concretes out there? Shula also was in Ace Ventura and did a bang-up job playing himself, nearly getting pulled into a mailbox by the insane Carrey, who is hiding in there when Shula mails a letter. Carrey reaches up to grab Shula's hand because...oh, never mind.

Shula chuckles when told that his display of emotion in the movie was quite believable. "Hell, when a guy grabs your arm in a mailbox, it's pretty easy," he replies. But he has never seen the finished film, isn't even sure what the thing is about. "A dog gets kidnapped or something, right?" he asks. Well, a dolphin does. And a quarterback. Whatever. The point is, you can make all the movies you want, but football, that's another universe.

Miami's new owner, Wayne Huizenga, who deals in both spheres, being the chairman and chief executive of Blockbuster Entertainment as well as proprietor of the Marlins and the Florida Panthers hockey team, knows the importance of Marino being Marino. "Dan is the Dolphins," Huizenga said shortly after posing for his first picture with the team last Saturday. "His wife, Claire, is great too. They are South Florida."

That's something to live up to, wouldn't you say? And so when Marino came onto the rain-drenched field on Sunday he stepped into the lead role in his own film. Would it be Ace Marino: Foot Defective or Giant?

The Patriots, led by 22-year-old quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who already plays like someone destined for all the highlight reels, went ahead 7-0 on a one-yard scoring run by fullback Kevin Turner. Marino came back with a 64-yard touchdown pass to wideout Mark Ingram to make it 7-7. The first half ended with the Patriots leading 14-10. Then the serious stuff began. Marino and Bledsoe threw for a combined 894 yards and nine touchdowns, with 574 yards and seven of the TDs coming in the second half. Bledsoe was cool and collected; Marino was just a block of ice on fire.

When he hobbled onto the field at the start of each offensive series, Marino looked like a boy weighted down with snow pants and galoshes. His left leg was oversized with a Lenox Hill derotation knee brace, and his right leg was burdened with a smaller knee brace and a cumbersome hinged brace to protect his ankle, which had also been operated on to have bone spurs removed from the front. "I put my head down when he walks," says Dolphin trainer Ryan Vermillion. "It's horrible. When he plays he looks a lot better."

Unbelievably better. Marino answered Bledsoe's third-quarter 62-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ben Coates with a 26-yard scoring toss to Miami tight end Keith Jackson on the next series. Bledsoe threw a five-yard touchdown strike to wideout Michael Timpson; Marino replied with a 54-yarder to Fryar. Marino tossed a 50-yard touchdown to Fryar on a flea-flicker play that the Dolphins had practiced all week and never completed, because Marino had always missed Fryar. But there was no missing today. Marino was locked on like a radar-controlled missile launcher. "He was relaxed, throwing darts," said Miami running back Keith Byars afterward.

Bledsoe—it's odd to think that there are many college quarterbacks older than he—hurled a 23-yard touchdown pass to diving wideout Ray Crittendon, to make the score 35-32 in New England's favor with a bit more than 10 minutes left in the game. But Marino was not done. After an exchange of possession, he took the Dolphins from their own 20 to the Patriot 35, where, on fourth-and-five, he saw single coverage on Fryar and simply backed up and laid out a perfect are down the right sideline that Fryar gently pulled in for the final score of the game and a victory that Shula later admitted would have been "devastating" not to have achieved.

Marino was so "on" that during a timeout in the third quarter he told Shula that an option pass to Jackson would certainly work. He guaranteed it. "It was like Babe Ruth calling his shot," says Byars. On the next play Marino threw a 26-yard touchdown missile to Jackson in the end zone. Marino's skinny right calf—it is atrophied and a half inch or so smaller in diameter than his left calf—carried him as though it had never suffered the slightest injury.

After the game Marino spoke briefly to the press, still defiant over the earlier suggestions that he might not be the quarterback he once was, and then he went to the training room for ice treatment on his various damaged body parts. Lots of ice. He came out, finally, when everybody had gone. The floor of the locker room was covered with mud, white tape, orange prewrap and crushed Gatorade cups. It looked as though a grenade had gone off in a box of wrapping paper.

Marino groaned as he sat down. "Oh, man," he said. "Oh." He pulled on his jeans, his socks, his soft hightop gym shoes. How did he do what he had done against the Patriots? How was it possible?

"You know what you have to do," he replied. "You just put the pain and everything out of your mind."

He sighed again. He shook his head. "My legs are killing me. I've got to get home and put more ice on them."

Did he hurt from taking a beating, from the residue of surgery, from reinjuring something?

"No," he said with a weak smile. "I'm sore just because it's been so damn long since I did that."

Had been himself, is what he meant.



Marino's legs never failed him as he threw for 473 yards.



Fryar hauled in a 35-yard fourth-down strike from Marino for the score that won the seesaw battle.



Bledsoe homed in on Coates for eight of his 32 completions and two of his four touchdown passes.



[See caption above.]



Ingram got the full meaning of 'Here's mud in your eye' and later earned a toast with a TD catch.